Strictly Business: Keep our leaders on the record

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian Port & Economy Reporter

Published:

 

Aaron Corvin

My editor suggested I write a goodbye column — this column you’re reading. I said yes to one last newspaper deadline.

That’s because I’m stepping away from more than 20 years as a journalist, including more than five years with The Columbian, and heading into an exciting new career in communications.

My family and I will stay in Camas. We love this community.

What to write for my farewell, though?

I thought about all of the knowledge and anecdotes and memories I’ve piled up over the years covering numerous beats in different towns in Washington and Oregon — everything from local, regional and state governments, and land-use, transportation and environmental issues to private businesses, public ports and publicly traded companies.

Too much to say about all of that here.

Better over a beer.

Or two.

So I’ll say what I think I need to say. And that’s this: There are few tools more important to a journalist than sunshine laws designed to enable the public to seek public records from the powerful public agencies that operate in their town.

Public records are the paper trail on which potentially life- and community-altering decisions are made.

To be sure, open public meetings laws are important, too. In fact, such federal and state laws were passed, with varying levels of transparency, in the aftermath of the toxic, secretive Nixon years.

But I want to focus on public records, specifically Washington state’s Public Records Act.

As an investigative reporter, I’ve used it time and again to hold governments accountable. Emails, planning and budget documents, memos, handwritten notes, drafts of press releases — the list goes on of internal records that governments don’t just go throwing around to everybody but that are often essential to digging up what’s really going on, what those in power are saying and doing when you’re not in the meeting room.

And here’s the thing: Journalists and lawyers aren’t the only ones who should be regularly shedding light by way of public records.

Citizens increasingly need to get in on the Act, too.

It’s not that difficult. Go here to obtain a Freedom of Information Act template for Washington state: www.nfoic.org/washington-sample-foia-request.

File a records request. Governments have a deadline to respond to you, and they have to cite specific legal justifications for withholding records from you.

Form a civic group dedicated to letting the sunshine in. Two brains are often better than one when you’re perusing reams of jargon-filled documents. Give the truth a horn blast by sharing the records with an enterprising reporter.

Public records aren’t liberal or conservative. They’re evidence. They’re facts. They put the lie to hollow assertions. They help form a fuller picture. They help lift the lid so we can begin the job of repairing our corner of democracy.

I know. It sounds corny, old-school, unrealistic. Especially in the age of information at the speed of light, of media fragmentation and distraction, of stagnant paychecks that make it none-too-easy for people to put food on the table, let alone engage in their democracy.

But it only takes a few unrepentant idealists to keep the fire burning.

That, and the courage to use a law that empowers you to demand disclosure from your government.